Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Wanna sing? Enroll for an upgrade first!

I asked a question in Jason Wood’s blog some days back to Dennis Moore, General Manager, SAP and the father of Duet. I asked him why SAP chose to use IBF framework from Microsoft to build Duet, when there were existing, stable alternatives such as Office Add-in interfaces that could be coupled easily with SAPs ESA framework for providing MS Office integration. No answer yet.

I am not surprised by his silence. It is a tough one,

By choosing IBF as the development platform for Office connectivity, SAP paved way for a solid win for Microsoft. IBF is supported only on Office 2003+ Professional editions and with IBF based Duet, Microsoft would be able to force its upgrades down the throats of enterprise users – and consequently, Microsoft can share the spoils from Duet. SAP wins because it expands its user base right into the desktop space, installs and deploys it middleware, and Microsoft wins because it gets its desktop upgrades - the one thing that enterprise users have stubbornly resisted, because Office 2000+ itself is “good enough” for them.

Net net, SAP and Microsoft win. But what about the customer? What does he get for all that expensive upgrade he has to do for Duet? Firstly, he gets Office 2003 professional on his desktop, which he did not want in the first place. And he gets the fairly limited scenarios from SAP, with a promise to get more, which no doubt SAP would deliver in the fullness of time. I simply cannot see CIOs or CFOs happy about this pay-now-get-benefits later buy.

It is easy to see why Microsoft is willing to push down its own MBS team and push for Duet from external SAP. After all, Duet might - just might - achieve what its Evolve marketing program could not do. Kick butt of Office 2000+ enterprise users and get them to upgrade.

But, it is hard to see why SAP felt the need to force its customers with MS Office upgrades. Just why would SAP want to do that??

- Sangeeta

Friday, May 26, 2006

The 'Don't Touch Me" Duet from SAP/MSFT vs "Build It As You Please" from others

As pointed out by Josh Greenbaum of ZDnet in this post, Project Harmony from IBM connects Notes to SAP and multiple other data sources. Is'nt that great? I mean, how many customers have no other application system other than SAP? That any desktop application technology should be multi-rooted, and connect to several data sources, is surely a no-brainer.

Better, Harmony can be changed out customer site, using Lotus tools - as declared by Rocky Oliver here. As Rocky observes " Duet is a "closed" application, meaning that you cannot modify it at all - you either use it as-is, or you don't use it. " Without doubt, the approach followed by IBM, and my firm, Extensio for desktop integration, that come along with its development tools, is far more extensible and flexible than Duet. Although Harmony works only on Notes, and that makes it unusable by most enterprise users who are on MS Office, it certainly is built better.

I was amused by the comparison of effort required by Duet and Harmony. Rocky claims Harmony was done by two/three engineers - while Duet took 2 whole years with hundreds of engineers in the making. But that is another story.


Thursday, May 25, 2006

Connected Excel: Different perspectives

Connected Excel means different things to different people.

Most vendors when quizzed whether they connect with Excel would nod their heads vigorously in the affirmative. Sure, they connect with Excel. Have done it for years. Piece of cake. Easy-peasy.

But they could be meaning any of these things:
Type #1 Creating reports in Excel format: Most vendors provide an option in thier reporting application to dump the report in Excel. Once those reports are created, they are spat out on the users file system. Thats it. Done. The Excel file, then, is the usual frozen-in-time Excel file, disconnected with any application, incapable of being refreshed with fresh data.

A variant of this is when the reports are mailed out using some e-mail server to users mailboxes at specified time intervals. The

Type #2 Taking in Excel files as input: Most vendors also provide options for importing data from Excel files. Provided the excel file is in the format specified by them. Provided it lies in a specific directory. Provided it contains no other data. Not your everyday use Excel files, but files specifically created for data input purposes. You could have as well created a flat file.

Type #3 Talking to only "their own" Excel files: Some BI vendors give birth to Excel spreadsheets from their applications, with their VB code in it. This VB code acts like an umblical cord between these Born-to-BI spreadsheets and the mother BI applications. In these spreadsheets, you can refresh data from the mother app, sometimes even upload data to the mother - but these spreadsheets cannot be tampered with. They are special - and you need to take care to let them be pristine. You cannot play with them, cannot put other data into them, nothing.

Type #4 Providing web service interfaces for Excel: For Excel 2003+, vendors claim that they have web services interfaces that can be called using the web query feature of Excel. And vendors actually expect end-users, the average Joe, to make sense out of XML LOL!

There were no credible options to connect Excel with enterprise applications. Not after Extensio came in though!

There are some voices heard about Excel connectivity in SAP's and Microsoft's Duet (formerly Mendocino) , but as far as I could see in the current release, all they do at this time is provide the Type #1 type of connectivity - ie create Excel files - and with its e-mail variant. With the hype that is created and the promises I see in the Duet Colleteral, that was a bit of a let down, but I am hopeful. Surely, biggies such as SAP and Microsoft have more for this 400M strong user application!

- Sangeeta

Value Packs - The piecemeal delivery of Duet

SAP announced the delivery of forthcoming value packs on Duet. And they were received enthusiastically. Or so they said.

Why do I find that so difficult to believe?

How can any customer be enthusiastic when the money that he pays for something (Office connectivity to SAP) is paid upfront, while the value is delivered in future via scheduled value packs?

More importantly, how can a customer in this time and age be enthusiastic when he is given no tools to build his own links to MS Office? Isnt this an age of web services and build-and-deploy-your- own technology, and when power-to-the-developer is critical for any purchase decision?

Folks, anyone who is evaluating Duet for implementation in their companies - take a hard look. There is plenty that is not told to you!

- Sangeeta

Voices from the Blogosphere about Duet after SAPPHIRE'06

It has been interesting, reading the Blogoshpere post about Duet after the Sapphire. I found some of my observations on Duet shared by other fellow bloggers.

Jason Wood posted this incisive blog on hurdles in the path of Duet adoption, with a critical one being of whether Duet would allow other parties, and data sources to get involved in providing Office connectivity. With only a "duet", when end-users are likely to want a orchestra, this Duet might just sing flat!

Ismael Ghalimi posted about how it could become really important for support for legacy SAP and MS Office to drive adoption of MS-Office connectivity. His excitement about the possibility to extend Duet using web services interfaces may however come a cropper. With the public trouble brewing between Microsoft Snap-ins and Duet, I wonder if SAP and Microsoft would invite other third parties to add to the chaos. Duet is likely to end up being a severely restricted bridge, with only "value packs" travelling on it.

My guess is, Duet is a heavy marketing and sales driven initiative, with each of the parties salivating about the huge upgrade revenues, and the additional user licenses. The fact that the end-user gets value in such a limited way , which I posted about earlier, does not bother any of them.

Hopefully, the customer will know better.

- Sangeeta

Monday, May 15, 2006

Connected Desktop? Wazzat?

What I define as "The Desktop" is the machine that sits on our tables, is used almost exlusively by us, and the runs Windows and MS Office. I know, I know, there are plenty of other non-Microsoft users, but most people - as it is for me - this desktop-microsoft linkage is a given.

Our desktop has two spaces - a personal one, and a public one. The personal one is intensely private and has its own, quite often self created, word documents, spreadsheets, text document or any other such desktop applications. This space is barricaded inside out desktop. We want no one snooping in there. The other public one is our window to the world, looks outward, and talks to the other information entities around us - internet, enterprise applications and such like.

These two worlds talk to each other using the magic keys of Cntrl-C and Cntrl-V. With these magic keys, we take data from one space to the other, without violating its boundaries. When the data moves into our personal space, it freezes - while the public world keeps on changes, keeing synch with the changed reality.

Keeping our personal space frozen in time is irksome. To make our personal space reflect real world. we need to use the Magic Keys. We need to get up, switch windows, start another application window, get what we want from the internet or any other such data source, select the required information, use the Magic keys, format it in properly and then put it in back in our personal space. And then, do the same over and over again if we wanted the latest. Aaarrgghhhhh....

Enter the Connected Desktop. A technology need born out of the necessity of keeping our personal desktop space up-to- date with the real time world, minimizing the need to open and close windows and using the magic keys. A mechanism that lets our personal documents in Word, Excel and others be refreshed with the latest data available from the public space.

Isn't it time that we use other ways than the old Cntrl-C and Cntrl- V magic keys?
Duet is built like a turnip. Scantily leaved at the top, real heavy in the middle, and tapered off root.

Duet connects up with Office at few interfaces - some links with Outlook, some promised ones with Excel, some in workflow - points of connectivity at several places, with a .net client fanning out the leafy fingers at "select" Office interface. And not just any Office - but Office 2003+ onwards.

Duet's middle consists of a stack of really heavy middleware that runs only on Windows servers- Microsoft Exchange, Microsoft .net Server, Microsoft SQL server, Active Directory, SAP Netweaver, SAP Composite Application Runtime...Whoa! That is some middle!

Duets root is what is really really thin. It can talk to only SAP, and that too only for a few transactions. Can't go into any soil, except mySAP ERP 2004+.

How would Duet meet the expectations of a Office user, built this way? Office users need roots like a banyan tree - to all data sources inside their enterprises. Need it to be like a full blown tree at the top, so that it can bring data from all back-ends to all their interfaces and branches. And they want the trunk to be strong, and something that can grow roots of its own.

Have a look at Extensio's desktop connectivity solution. Check out how it compares with Duet on the roots, the middle and the leaves.

What would you, the desktop user, rather have? A turnip or a banyan tree?

- Sangeeta
Duet is a technology AFTER its time.

So says Vinnie Mirchandani, an ex-Gartner Analyst, in his blog about Duet/Mendocino. There is no one - not users, not vendors, not buyers and not even analysts that disagree that connecting up Office with enterprise information is a need whose time has been past due. People have wanted it, asked for it and salivated for it for years.

Yet, enterprise vendors and Microsoft did not provide credible, do-able options for Office users. Not till Duet. The noise over Duet is like a collective nodding of heads. In agreement over the need to get the enterprise knowledge worker access enterprise information on his tools. Not too many people have looked beyond their nodding heads to figure out just how limited or how expensive the Duet option is. Duet is limited to SAP and Microsoft, needs upgrades in both these systems, needs a lot of expensive middleware, and will be a bear to manage and deploy.

The fact that enterprise vendors did not provide credible options is really strange. Office interfaces have been hogging mindshare and time-share of users for years and years now. To connect them up to enterprise applications is surely a no-brainer. But it did not happen. Certainly not because of technology hurdles. There were options provided even in earlier Office 2000 versions that developers could use to build bridges between Office and enterprise apps. There is a whole thriving community of vendors who did just that. However, no large enterprise vendor seriously thought about the needs of desktop users. They were too busy chasing the new devices (mobile), or the new interfaces (portals) or perhaps even architectures, or buying over other players.

The entire Office users market place has been lying fallow for years.

Duet has moved on this fallow land and staked it claim on its future harvest. With Duet, SAP and Microsoft have established an early lead in the Office interface market. This market is huge. SAP executives have said that they expect Duet to not just double, or triple - but grow its user base by FOUR times. That is some market!

The desktop interface is easily the most lucrative interface market going at this time. Every person in the enterprise is a potential user, and each one of them can potentially pay for connectivity to enterprise information. Duet is the first player, but its approach is so seriously flawed that the next entrant with a leaner, meaner and extensible technology can easily obliterate the gains made by Duet. This could happen before the next wave of "value packs", as called by the Duet team are delivered.

The browser wars are over, and irrelevant. The next war will be for the desktop interfaces. It should be fun to see how it unfolds.

I am going to talk about the chinks in the armour for Duet in a while. Watch this space!

- Sangeeta

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Not only is Excel disconnected, it is risky too!

Using Excel is risky business. There are numerous examples of the risks shouldered by Excel usage documented at length at, a worldwide interest group focussed on this very issue.

One of the major reasons for the risks of Excel is the risks of having bad data. While this is a risk for any application (Remember the old principle of GIGO - Garbage in, Garbage out), this risk is very large in Excel, because Excel is largely populated by hand. Worse, there are no audit trails, as there are in enterprise applications. Once the data is entered in Excel, it just sits there and is emailed around.

No one knows who put the data in Excel, no one knows if someone changed it, no one knows if it is current.

A connected Excel can solve this problem in a big way. If Excel can be connected to data sources, and in a manner that does not need to user to learn complex SQL or XML, a single refresh can take away all the data risks for Excel. I presented a paper on this problem in the EuSpRIG conference last year. My co-author and I had suggested a mechanism of connecting Excel to back-end sources that can reduce the data risks of Excel to a large degree. We did build out most of what we had said. Check it out.

I heard that Microsoft is getting into the act and creating what is called as the "Excel Server" to mitigate some of the risks, and serve this very large user community. Not many details are out at this time though. It is slated for release sometime in the next few quarters.

- Sangeeta

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Why Mendocino/Duet from SAP and Microsoft

Who needs Duet (Formerly called Mendocino) anyway?

Can't be business users. Can't imagine them getting excited about automating their leave application process. Which is what the current implementation does. But extend the possibilites of working with enterprise application within MS Office, the user interface of choice by business users, and it begins to make perfect sense.

Makes sense only when one "extends" the possibilities of connecting Office beyond leave applications, beyond budget management and beyond SAP. Extends the desktop interface to interact with all enterprise applictions, the internet and the intranet. In a manner that is secure. And which does need one to throw away what one has and buy another piece of software.

None of this is what Duet does. Duet connects to only SAP, only a few transactions, only on Outlook, only on Office 2003 or Office 12, only for mySAP ERP 2004...

Its the ONLY that begs that question - Why do Duet, if it gives back so little for so much?

Why listen to a Duet, when you need to listen to full bodied symphony, with mutliple singers, multiple voices and multiple instruments?

- Sangeeta